The Bimodal Nature of Work

One of the things that puzzles me about the vast literature on organizational dynamics, self control, will power, etc. etc. is that it seems to ignore an important reality about actual work.  In my experience work comes in two flavors – everything is going just fine v.s. stuck.  In the first mode you think you to know what your doing, the tools are reasonably helpful, and the problem at hand is receding as you work on it.  That’s not to say the work is easy, it’s still work – unless your so lucky as to fallen into flow.  But in the other mode one or more of these has decided to leave the building.

Users of complex tools are familiar with this bimodal problem.  if you use any powerful desktop application (a Microsoft product, or an Adobe product for example) then you’ll have often experienced the second mode.  We have all lost a day or two trying to figure out how to make page numbers work, the bibliography to appear correctly, etc. etc.  These are examples where our skills and the tools conspire to push us into the second mode.  The no progress mode is being made mode.

The more you push the edge of your skills or adopt new tools, or work on fresher problems the higher the chance your going to fall into this second mode.  I suspect some trades spend large portions of their work lives in this second mode.

It is trivial for an outside observer to misdiagnosis the second mode and describe the situation as not working.  He’s happy to point out that no progress is being made.  Duh!  And he’s happy to dust off all the usual suspects; e.g. moral failings of various kinds.

You can see occasional hints that this or that an organizational scheme addresses this by the appearance of terms like “management reserve,” “friction.”  In Scrum the use the term velocity.  But none of these dare to admit that work falls into the second mode.  None of them speak to the puzzle of how to estimate the probability of entering the mode.  None of provide any advise for picking apart what is happening in the mode, which is a precondition for getting out of it.

The skills for thriving in this mode might be called persistence.  That’s really a distinct skill from skills that keep you on task in simpler times.  At least I think so.  The will power to maintain focus is somehow different than the willpower required to survive a long period this second mode where no measurable progress is being made.  And while persistence is one strategic approach an alternate one could be named agility, aka change course.  Again the moralistic outside observer might see that as quitting.  The complementary pair of persistence and agility reminds me of  Levy walks.

2 thoughts on “The Bimodal Nature of Work

  1. nzc

    This is very much also my experience, moving, or stuck. One shies away from Freud in these cases… So, a part of me wants to agree with you, but another part is pretty sure that when *we* (our society of mind here) are stuck, we often wander off to randomly surf the web (We’re eating lunch now, and limiting ourselves to rss feeds only 😉 rather than thinking the hard thoughts that make progress towards getting un-stuck. I’m not so sure I’ll go all the way to the strictly moralistic point of view, but I’ll say that the completely practical, energetic analysis of the system (“physics is where the least action is…”-) tends to suggest a possible failure mode here for ourselves, and possibly one might generalize a teeny bit from that to others selves. Not in any sort of old-testament-flavored kind of way. But it does seem like negative internal feedback of some sort is called for. I do often feel like I just don’t have the internal resources to apply that negative feedback to myself, but I am deeply suspicious of such feelings. 😉 Anyway, back to progress.

  2. Edward Vielmetti

    There’s an argument for an approach to getting unstuck from the diversity point of view; sometimes all it takes to untangle a mess is to have someone come at it from a fresh viewpoint or a new angle than the people working on the problem had.

    You see this in academia when physicists wander into social science fields and start applying statistical mechanics to social issues; you also see it when investigative reporters with no background in a field wander in and start doing research.

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